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The Crash: Part 2 (How the Fallout Changed the Course of my Life)

The Crash: Part 2 (How the Fallout Changed the Course of my Life)

In my last post, I told about the life-changing car wreck I was in as a teenager on December 22, 1985. I said that it was that car wreck that changed my life, but that post really didn’t go into details as to how my life changed. In this post, I want to share a little bit of how the course of my life changed because of that car wreck.

Over the course of that Christmas break, I did a lot of soul-searching, at least as much soul-searching as a 16-year-old kid is capable of doing. Having grown up in a Christian home, having gone to an Assemblies of God church for most of my life, and as I was going to an Evangelical Christian high school, I was, simply put, a good suburban, Evangelical Christian kid. I was still a kid though, and for all practical purposes didn’t know all that much about anything outside of conservative Christian Evangelicalism.

In any case, the car wreck made me think—and what I thought about were the countless youth group sermons and high school chapels where I was constantly being told that I need to “get on fire” for Jesus, and not give into “apathy.” If you attended a Christian high school, you’ll be able to relate. I decided that it was time that I really did “get on fire” for Jesus—I was going to get serious, really serious, about my faith.

16-Year-Old Joel Gets Christian Hard Core

Franky Schaeffer

It was the mid-80’s, at the height of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” and I had started reading books like The Great Evangelical Disaster, by Francis Schaffer, and Bad News for Modern Man, by his son, Franky Schaeffer. These books, as others like them, had a single message: Evangelical Christianity is going down the tubes because of secular humanism and liberalism.

Now, to be sure, there really is a lot wrong with our increasingly secularistic culture, and I am by no means any kind of liberal. But, however well-intentioned books like those were, I think they helped whip up a certain amount of paranoia in the Evangelical world, and ended up blurring the lines between the Kingdom of God as proclaimed in the Gospel, and a right-wing political ideology of the GOP. Again, I say that as someone who still is largely conservative, and who has, by and large, voted GOP. I might overall agree with the GOP platform, but I know the difference between that and the Gospel. The two are not the same. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case with many people. But I digress…

Reading these books made a huge impact on me during the second semester of my junior year. I happened to be taking a Bible class on Doctrine that semester, and the major assignment was to write a doctrine paper. My paper wasn’t so much on any particular doctrine, as it was the parroting of the books I had been reading. The title of my paper was, Christianity 1986 AD: Rotting from Within. I still have it. The thing that strikes me most about it, is that it’s the kind of essay you could probably find written by Ken Ham, the ultra-Fundamentalist young earth creationist. In fact, he had written his first major book, The Lie, in 1987. I’m astonished to realize that my paper had a jump on him by about 9 months.

Instead of me explaining what my paper was specifically about, allow me to just share the first few sentences. It will give you an idea:

“Many liberals, under the name Evangelical and Christian, have twisted and molded Christianity into some fashionable, non-controversial religion that anyone can join without giving up one shred of immorality. The greater orthodox Christian community, on the other hand, has refused to speak out against these so-called Evangelicals, and has even said that staying uninvolved in biblical and love. These two groups make up the majority of today’s Christian church. Because these two groups compromise the Word of God and cop out, the secular liberals, in the meantime, are tearing down every wall of morality and even are attacking the church directly.”

It goes on in that vein for 12 pages. In the paper, I condemned church leaders and Christian colleges like Wheaton and Calvin; and I decried abortion, homosexuality, and somehow (yes, this is ironically true, for those of you who’ve read my other posts on Ken Ham) linked it to the creation vs. evolution debate.

I really didn’t know what I was talking about. All I knew was that if I was going to be “on fire” for Jesus, it meant that I judge and condemn any and all Christians who were, in my opinion, too compromised. It turned out that my Bible teacher was really impressed—so impressed, in fact, that she arranged for me to read my paper in chapel. I thought I had arrived. I was convinced I was going to start a revival at my school.

After I read my paper, I challenged the student body to stand up out of their pews if they were really serious about following Christ. Of course, being a Christian school, everyone did (more out of peer pressure than conviction). Then I challenged them to come down to the stage after chapel was over, and write their names down. I was going to form Christian action groups for next year. I was convinced that I was going to be some great “leader” for my Senior year.

And Then God Tapped Me On the Shoulder
The reason why most of my classmates might not even remember that chapel was because that great “movement” was I going to lead never happened—soon after school got out for the summer, God displayed his ruthlessness once again in my life…just not in the form of a car crash. I can’t explain it, really. I just had the sudden realization—conviction, if you will—that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or what I really believed. It was at that time that my sister was telling me about a book she was reading, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. She had also read something about Francis Schaeffer that was interest to me. After he had become a Christian, become a pastor, and had been a pastor for a number of years, he had the realization that he wasn’t sure what he believed. Long story short, he admitted it, left his pastoral position for a time, went off into the Alps, and completely rethought his faith.

That blew me away: here was a guy who was a pastor for years, and he admitted his crisis of faith, and essentially went back to square one. I was a 16 year old kid—what did I know? Maybe I should admit the same thing to myself. And so, over the course of that summer, without really telling anyone, I was essentially an agnostic. I took the summer to read Mere Christianity to see if there really was anything truly convincing and substantial to Christianity. (You can read all of my 30 + posts on Mere Christianity starting here). That book gave me a solid start and sure footing as to what Christianity really is. Years later, once I became an Orthodox Christian, and actually taught Mere Christianity in my 11th grade Bible class, I was amazed at how fundamentally Orthodox C.S. Lewis (an Anglican) really was.

As for Schaeffer, although I’ve ended up disagreeing with a number of his arguments about Christianity, philosophy, and Western Culture, I still appreciate the fact that he was one of the first Evangelical Christians to really attempt to engage Western philosophy and culture. His books opened the door to my attempts to understand culture and philosophy. His books, How Should We Then Live, The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and He is Not Silent, are still worth the read.

Sting: The Evangelist
In addition to Lewis and Schaeffer, my sister introduced also me to the music of Sting—and Sting’s music probably can constitute the soundtrack of my life. In the summer of 1986, though, he had just come out with his first solo album, Dream of the Blue Turtles, an incredibly artistic, jazz-infused piece of musical perfection. Not only that, though, but the topics it covered and the lyrics of virtually every song spoke to my soul. I listened to “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” a song actually inspired by the Ann Rice novel, “Interview with a Vampire,” and heard in the lyrics the dilemma of being human.

I could comment on every song on that album, but I will limit my comments to just one more: “Consider Me Gone.” This song, probably more than any other, signified my leaving my childhood behind. After reading Mere Christianity, I realized two things: the Christianity Lewis described made sense, yet the Christianity I had grown up in smacked of shallowness. By the end of the summer, I knew I was going to follow the Christ I found in Lewis’ book, and that meant that I just wasn’t going to feel at home in the Evangelical world I had grown up in—hence, Sting’s song, “Consider Me Gone.” The lyrics are as follows:

You can’t stay there, you can’t stay there

There were rooms of forgiveness in the house that we shared
But the space has been emptied of whatever was there
There were cupboards of patience, there were shelf-loads of care
But whoever came calling, found nobody there

 After today, consider me gone

 Roses have thorns, and shining waters mud
And cancer lurks deep in the sweetest bud
Clouds and eclipses stain the moon and the sun
And history wreaks of the wrongs we have done

After today, consider me gone

I’ve spent too many years at war with myself
My doctor has told me it’s no good for my health
To search for perfection is all very well
But to look for heaven is to live here in hell

After today, consider me gone

I’ll say it right now, that song is my life’s soundtrack. That song speaks more of the hard part of the Gospel to me than virtually anything else: take up your cross and follow me; let the dead bury their dead; the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. That song set me out on my new life, and for the most part it has been quite lonely.

I Never Really Left, Until Recently
Now, I never completely “left” the Evangelical world. Even when my Christian journey led me to the Orthodox Church (I remember distinctly thinking the first time I ever went to an Orthodox liturgy, “I’m home”), I remained teaching Bible in Evangelical schools for 16 years. That being said, I never did fully feel “at home” in Evangelical churches and schools ever since that summer of 1986. And I still don’t yet understand why, after I had found the Orthodox Church, God would take me away to a place where there is no Orthodox Church. I find myself a 46-year-old divorced Orthodox Christian with no Orthodox Church, and whom Evangelical schools have rejected because (as you know if you read my blog) I don’t think the universe is 6,000 years old.

So when Jesus turns to me and asks, “What about you? Are you going to leave me too?” What else can I say, other than the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom can I go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Translation? I keep driving. I keep wrestling with God…
…and I sing,

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.”

The Final Installment of my Book Review of Mere Christianity: 4:11–The New Men

The Final Installment of my Book Review of Mere Christianity: 4:11–The New Men

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The final chapter of Mere Christianity is entitled, “The New Men.” In it, Lewis touches upon something that will no doubt drive your modern day fundamentalist crazy: evolution. Not only does Lewis mention it, but he actually says, “Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea best if he takes it in connection with evolution.”

That’s right. C.S. Lewis—the beloved writer of the Chronicles of Narnia series—had no problem with the theory of evolution. He was what we would call a theistic evolutionist. He not only did not see evolution as a threat to the faith, he saw it as a perfect way to further explain the Christian idea of salvation and growing up in Christ. Now, although this post is not where I’m going to address this further, I do want to mention that many of the early Church Fathers held a similar view. No, they didn’t know anything about the scientific theory of evolution, but they did teach that God created all creation with the ability to adapt and change, and they did teach that God had not created man perfect, but rather with the purpose of growing up and being transformed more fully into the likeness of God. In fact, I think Lewis probably got his ideas from the early Church Fathers.

In any case, Lewis point about evolution and Christianity is this: evolution shows that the “stream of life” that has happened over the past few millions of years has often flowed in ways that would, at the time, have not been foreseen. Think about the dinosaurs—“logic” would have it that creatures would go on getting bigger and stronger; but as it turned out, the most dominant creatures on the earth today rarely grow more than 6 feet tall, and they gain dominance over nature with what their brains can conceive…these creatures are so advanced that they can write long posts on a computer and then send them all over the world on something called the “internet.” I’m sure no T-Rex saw that coming!

Lewis’ point is that evolution often takes unexpected turns, and this is precisely what we see in Christianity. That “next step” in evolution has already happened in the person of Jesus Christ—and the next big change isn’t from one sort of biological creature into another, but rather from biological human beings into true, “Zoe-filled” human beings like Christ. Simply put, the next step takes us beyond mere biology. Or as Lewis says, “In a sense, the change is not ‘evolution’ at all, because it is not something arising out of the natural process of events, but something coming into nature from outside.”

This change, Lewis says, is different in other ways as well. First, this “new life” isn’t carried on by sexual reproduction—it is a distinctive work of the Spirit that works out over the course of time. (Of course, we still can’t help but using sexually-related metaphors to describe this change: we are “born again”).

The second difference is that, whereas in evolution, where organisms have no real choice in the matter of evolving, in this instance, we as human creatures entirely have the choice to take the next step or not. We can either chose to accept the offer of the new kind of life, or we can refuse it.

The third difference goes back to Christ. Lewis had earlier said that Christ was the “first instance” of the new man. Here he revises his earlier comment, and says that Christ is not simply the “first instance” of the new man, but in reality he is the new man: “He is the origin and center and life of all the new men.” And in that sense, not only are we as individuals “new men,” but we are ultimately part of the new man.

Fourthly, whereas the earlier steps of evolution took millions of years, this new kind of Christian life has happened like a lightning bolt. Remember, 2,000 years in the scope of the history of the universe is a blip. Seen in that light, the Church is, as Lewis puts it, still teething: “The outer world, no doubt, thinks [the Church] is dying of old age.”

Finally, as Lewis says, the stakes are higher. All the earlier evolutionary changes in this creation can be compared to the “evolution” of that initial sperm and egg into a 9-month-in-the-womb fetus, ready to be born into a whole new world it cannot yet conceive. The new life in Christ is that new birth into a whole new mode of life. On this point, Lewis wonders: “I wonder what an ordinary baby would do if it had the choice. It might prefer to stay in the dark and warmth and safety of the womb. For of course it would think the womb meant safety. That would be just where it was wrong; for if it stays there it will die.”

Lewis ends his chapter (and his book) by pointing out that already, all throughout the world the “new men” are already being transformed. The way he describes “the new men” has always intrigued me:

“Every now and then one meets them. [But] they will not be very like the idea of ‘religious people’ which you have formed from your general reading. They do not draw attention to themselves. You tend to think that you are being kind to them when they are really being kind to you. They love you more than other men do, but they need you less. They will usually seem to have a lot of time: you will wonder where it comes from.”

The last thing Lewis says is that when it comes right down to it, there are no real personalities outside of God. The only way you will ever be your true self is to find yourself in God. He says, “Sameness is to be found among the most ‘natural’ men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.”

With that, Lewis points out that if all you’re concerned about is yourself, you’re never going to find Christ:

“Your real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters. Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring a two-pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever really be yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

I know that’s a long quote, but that’s how Lewis ends the book, and that’s a pretty good summary of the principle of life itself…if you ask me.

The thing I most appreciate about Mere Christianity is that it shows that Christianity is a lot more than just some nice little formula to “get saved and go to heaven.” If Christianity does not open the door to a bigger understanding of God, of life, and of creation itself, if it does not reveal a far greater, more complex, more challenging, more invigorating world that you realize you cannot even fully conceive—if it doesn’t do that, then it’s not worthwhile.

Mere Christianity stands as the point in my life where I started to really grasp what a truly transformative worldview Christianity was. It has shaped my life, possibly more than any other book—for without reading Mere Christianity, my life would have no doubt taken a very different direction. The faith I saw in Mere Christianity called to me, and I chose to follow. I don’t know how many posts I’ve ended doing as I’ve gone through the entire book, but I felt impelled to do this. I ended up teaching the book to students for 12 of my 16 years as a teacher, and chances are I’ll never teach the book again (being that, of course, I’m no longer working in Christian schools).

It was 30 years ago I first read Mere Christianity—30 years. Wow. If you read all my posts, I hope you enjoyed them. I hope you pick up the book and read the whole thing. It certainly is just in my blood—it has helped shape virtually everything in my Christian worldview. Once you read Mere Christianity, you’ll be able to see these ideas running through all of his other fiction books.

Fini.

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity…4:10–Nice People or New Men

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity…4:10–Nice People or New Men

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Since my son is still napping, I thought I’d just continue and move on to Lewis’ next chapter in Mere Christianity: “Nice People or New Men.” In this chapter, Lewis touches upon a very common complaint often levied against Christians. It goes something like this:  If Christianity is so great, then how come so many Christians are such jerks? If Christianity was true, then why aren’t all Christians nicer than all non-Christians?

Fair enough…Lewis admits that if Christianity doesn’t ultimately improve one’s behavior, than it’s very likely that that person’s “conversion” was largely imaginary. That being said, though, Lewis says that we are mistaken if we think that Christianity is simply about good behavior. It is ultimately about, as Lewis has been arguing, transformation into entirely new creatures…and that transformation takes time. It’s a process. The issue, when it comes to behavior, isn’t whether or not “all Christians” are nicer than “all non-Christians.” The issue is, given whatever personality or temperament a person is born with, whether or not he/she improves.

It is at this point that Lewis makes an observation that has had a tremendous influence on me in regards to how I understand people in general. Lewis points out:

[The world] “does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.”

Yes, that quote has so many things in it that your head might be spinning right now. I think it is quite profound…and utterly true. Lewis point is really simple: each one of us, with every choice we make in our lives, are slowly either becoming more or less Christ-like. You might have been saved when you were 18, but that doesn’t mean that you are completely Christ-like yet—we all know this. In fact, we fully understand that as we live our lives and follow Christ that we are (hopefully) more Christ-like at 45 than we were at 20. As Lewis has been saying all along, salvation, as it works out in the history of our lives, is a process.

And yes, that even extends to people in other religions. When I was in college I read quite a lot about Gandhi. He called himself a Hindu, but it was quite clear that the most influential person in his life was Jesus Christ. He read the Gospels fervently and tried to pattern his life after Christ. He didn’t call himself a Christian because the “Christianity” he had experienced was a very imperialistic and racist corruption of it coming from the British Empire. I think Lewis would say that Gandhi was Christ’s in a way that Gandhi himself didn’t fully understand. But that is only an example, and pure speculation on my part.

But getting back to the topic of the Christian life, Lewis’ point is very important. So why are some Christians not as nice as some non-Christians? That should be obvious: what often is it that pushes people to put their faith in Christ? Often times it is that some people are really bad and really messed up—and they know it. Not only that, but they know they are helpless—that is why they turn to Christ. So quite obviously, when a person like that first becomes a Christian, he’s not going to change overnight—he still has a lot of junk to work through. And salvation in the history of our lives takes time. It’s a process.

By contrast, there are some people who’ve had an easy time in life, who have it “all together.” Lewis points out that often times these sorts of people think their good personality and even-temper is all due to themselves, not realizing that if they had grown up in the inner city where drugs and violence were prevalent, chances are they wouldn’t be such a nice person. I’ll admit it, I’m a pretty nice guy overall. Why? Because I grew up in a loving, stable home. Sure, I made some smart choices in my life, but the “raw material” I was given by my parents was pretty good—and I was just fortunate. Therefore, me being a generally nice guy really isn’t something I could take pride in—I didn’t achieve it; that “niceness” was pretty much given to me.

The fact is, I know my temperament. I know how easily frustrated I can become. If I had been raised in a less than ideal situation, those shortcomings I have would have no doubt been amplified, and would no doubt have made me a much meaner person. And that’s the point Lewis is making. Why are not all Christians nicer than non-Christians? The answer is simple: (A) many Christians become Christians because they know they’re not good people; and (B) regardless of where one is in temperament, salvation and transformation take time.

The rest of the chapter, Lewis gives an extended example of all this with two fictitious people: Miss Bates—a Christian, but who has serious issues; and Dick Firkin—a very nice non-Christian. His point with both types of people can be summed up in the following two quotes:

Concerning Dick: “A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easy to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness.” –and therefore, why drag God into it?

Now, although I’m a Christian, I can identify with that mentality. One of the things I’ll willingly admit, now that I’ve gone through a painful divorce—I’m not as nice and self-controlled as I thought I was. After having gone through that pain, I find myself swearing a little (well, a lot) more than I’m proud of. Put me through the wringer a bit, and I become painfully aware how easily my niceness can evaporate when things get tough.

Concerning Miss Bates: “It is very different for the nasty people—the little, low, timid, warped, thin-blooded, lonely people, or the passionate, sensual, unbalanced people. If they make any attempt at goodness at all, they learn in double quick time, that they need help. It is Christ or nothing for them. It is taking up the cross and following—or else despair.”

I’ve become convinced that even for the “nice people,” it is inevitable to come to a point of that kind of despair. It takes something to bring you to the point where you truly realize that you are ultimately helpless. Whatever it is you are capable of dealing with, there will come a time when the burden become too much for you to bear alone.

In any case, it’s something to think about. I’ll just leave it at that.

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: 4:9–Counting the Cost

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: 4:9–Counting the Cost

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As C.S. Lewis continues to wrap up his book Mere Christianity, he addresses the idea in the Bible in which God says, “Be ye perfect.” He makes it clear that “becoming perfect” is not a requirement you must achieve in order for God to accept you. Rather, it is the goal and purpose for which God made you in the first place. And therefore, Lewis says, if you accept Christ, “becoming perfect” is what you’re in for—and no half-measures are any good.

In typical Lewis fashion, he once again provides a very good analogy—one which I simply cannot do better than:

“Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed…or which is obviously spoiling daily life. Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.

“That is why He warned people to ‘count the cost’ before becoming Christians. ‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect—until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you as He said He was well pleased with Me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.’”

…and there you have it. I don’t think I can really say it any better. I will say this though: it’s one thing to read those words and be impressed by them. It’s one thing to almost get all “macho” and say, “Yeah! Salvation costs you everything!” It’s quite another thing when you are actually going through that suffering—when you’re in the middle of heart-wrenching pain, when you don’t know what is up or down, and when you find yourself screaming at God, “Enough! I didn’t sign up for this! It’s not fair!”

I know I’ve sworn my head off at God at times. I think he can take it. In fact, it’s at those times I can almost hear him say, “I know this isn’t what you signed up for. But you can’t conceive the end result…so suck it up.” If that sounds like I’m making God out to be a bit harsh…I am. I think he is—at least from my perspective. But that’s the thing—it’s only from my perspective.

In any case, Lewis provides yet one more superb analogy to get into our heads about what being made perfect is like. He borrowed it from his favorite writer, George MacDonald:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

I think too often people, even Christians, really short-change what salvation really is about. We picture it as really nothing more than us walking on streets of gold in white robes, and always smiling…but still being our puny little selves, just a bit cleaner. Needless to say, I don’t think we really grasp what God is up to. Thankfully, Lewis has, for me, given me a bit of a better glimpse.

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity: 4:8–Is Christianity Hard or Easy?

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity: 4:8–Is Christianity Hard or Easy?

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The last few chapters of Mere Christianity have had a tremendous challenging influence on me ever since my high school days. This chapter is fairly straightforward, and actually puts into perspective the challenge Christianity offers.

The first thing Lewis states comes directly from the previous chapter: if you start to “put on Christ” and start to “pretend” to be like Christ, you’re going to find that there are going to be a number of things in your life you’re going to have to change if you really want to be like Christ—and some of those things you’re not going to want to change. Well, not to be too blunt, but tough. As Lewis says, “The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you.” And that leads to one of the most significant quotes in the entire book of Mere Christianity (at least for me):

The Christian way is different: harder and easier. Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

Obviously, giving yourself over to be “killed” is hard. But Lewis’ point is that there’s really no other option if you want to become like Christ. So if you make the choice, be committed to the “salvation process,” and get ready for some pain. In fact, what I’ve found in life is this: pain is inevitable; it’s part of what it means to live in this world. How you react to it will determine whether or not it has a positive or negative effect on your life. It’s like fire: it can either purify you by burning away the dross in your life, so to speak, or it can completely consume you. Either way, it’s going to burn…so you’d better be prepared.

If you go about following Christ in the same way a lazy student goes about doing his schoolwork, you’re going to find that it’s going to be harder. As Lewis says, in the long run, laziness means more work. The student who pays attention in class and does the daily work, will, by the time the exam comes, have a fairly easy time. By contrast, the lazy student who doesn’t do the daily work, will end up pulling all-nighters, trying to study for the exam just to pass—and most of the time, those type of students don’t, in fact pass.

The same principle is true for the Christian life. Just as laziness and cowardice kills a student’s grade, laziness and cowardice can kill the Christian life. As Lewis says, “We are like eggs at present. You cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

And that, by the way, is the point of the Church—to draw people into Christ and to make them little Christs. If that’s not happening, then as Lewis says, “all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.”

Very true indeed.

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: 4:7–Let’s Pretend!

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: 4:7–Let’s Pretend!

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Thus far in Book 4 of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has been trying to both lay out some basic concepts regarding the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and then show how it impacts the way we understand time, eternity, and the Christian doctrine of salvation itself. In the previous chapter of 4:5, “Obstinate Toy Soldiers” (4:6 is simply a short side note that I am not addressing), Lewis gives us a picture of what it would be like if we were able to turn the toy figurines we had as children into actual people.

From the doll’s perspective, it would feel like you were, in fact, killing it. It wouldn’t understand what you were doing. And the thing is, in a sense you would be killing it—you’d be “killing off” the doll nature of the doll, and in turn giving it a new nature—a real human nature. And even though the end result would be a real human being, the process itself would probably be painful and confusing for the doll.

Let’s Pretend, and Pray, and Be Transformed

In this chapter, entitled “Let’s Pretend,” Lewis relates the first words of the Lord’s prayer to a common childhood activity in order to illustrate just what the Christian life entails. He begins, though, by referencing stories like Beauty and the Beast, where what begins as a hideous monster ends up becoming a handsome man; or a story where someone had to wear a mask that made him look nicer than he really was—but in the end, when he took off the mask, his face had grown to fit it, and he had become quite handsome. In stories like this, “What had begun as a disguise had become a reality.” That is why we like stories like these: they point to transformation—and deep down, we all yearn for transformation.

So what does that have to do with the Lord’s prayer? Well, the very first words are, “Our Father…” Lewis points out that when you say those words, you are putting yourself in the position of God’s Son—but the fact is, you aren’t God’s Son. You are actually pretending. Now, this kind of pretending isn’t a bad thing. It’s one thing to pretend to be someone you’re not in order to deceive someone; it’s quite another thing to pretend to be someone you hope to become in the future. Children do it all the time when they “play grown up.” I don’t know a high school athlete who hasn’t imagined himself his favorite sports star as he is practicing. Why do we do that? Because we hope that eventually what begins as mere pretending will eventually “rub off” on us, and we will actually become like that.

Imitation of Christ

Pretending to be like Christ is actually very similar to pretending to be your sports hero. When you do, you find yourself looking for ways to imitate him. You look at your own behavior (or your own game) and see flaws in it, and places to improve. I remember studying intently the wind-up of Sandy Koufax, and then trying to emulate his pitching form.

When it comes to imitating Christ, Lewis points out that what you find is that the real Son of God is at your side, slowly turning you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is, if you will, “injecting” His Zoe life into your Bios nature, with the intent of letting that “good infection” work its way through you, so that your Bios “statue-like” life will be transformed into life that is capable of participating in the uncreated Zoe life of God Himself.

Lewis then anticipates a certain objection. One that says, “I’ve never had the sense of being helped by an invisible Christ, but I often have helped by other human beings.” Lewis’ response is quite clever: “That is rather like the woman in the first war who said that if there were a bread shortage it would not bother her house because they always ate toast. If there is no bread there will be not toast. If there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings.”

His point is quite simple: often times the way in which God helps us is through other human beings. That is why the Apostle Paul emphasized the idea that we are Christ’s body, that we are his hands and feet. That actually is the proper understanding of what the Church should be: the body of Christ—the instrument by which Christ transforms the lives of individuals and societies.

In any case, the final point Lewis makes about this slow transformation of becoming more Christ-like is this: we should expect to find that as we are becoming more Christ-like, that we notice more of our sinfulness. That doesn’t mean we find ourselves getting more bent out of shape over specific sins, but that we find ourselves becoming more aware of the shortcomings and sins of our very nature. Dealing with specific sins is one thing. With hard work, one can stop swearing, or lying, or whatever. Transformation of our very natures, though, that is something no individual can do with just hard work. And, as Lewis points out, it is on that level that we realize we cannot do it on our own.

Puppets on a String or Human Beings on a Journey

Lewis’ point is simple: as we pretend to be like Christ, we find Christ is there, slowly changing us from mere “puppets” to real, Christ-like human beings. We cannot effect the fundamental change ourselves, but we do participate in the transformation through obedience and humility…and of course, walking in faith.

When you think about it, that’s really the difference between “toy soldiers” or “puppets” on one hand, and actual human beings on the other. A puppet is always getting its strings pulled; it is at the mercy of the whims and wishes of what Paul calls the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12), this “present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), and the “god of this age” (II Corinthians 4:4).

In our natural, biological state, we are but mere puppets, and therefore slaves of the darker powers of this age. But God’s plan all along has been to transform us from our natural state into the supernatural reality of the Son of God, sharing in the life of the age to come. That is what is means to be a true human being: opening up to God, obeying Christ, and therefore consciously choosing to take part in the transformative journey of salvation.

So start pretending, Pinocchio…and start listening to that inner voice that says, “A real boy would do this…” Walk in that way—it is the life of faith. It is the journey of salvation. Become a son of God, and inherit God’s good creation.

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: Book 4:5–Obstinate Toy Soldiers

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: Book 4:5–Obstinate Toy Soldiers

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We are no turning the corner and getting into the “home stretch” of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. In this chapter, Lewis provides an analogy that might seem quite simple, but actually is quite profound, having its roots in great Christian thinkers like Irenaeus of Lyons and great Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The analogy stems from the fundamental theological points Lewis made earlier in Book 4 in regards to the Trinity, and the concepts of Bios  and Zoe.

Lewis points out that at present, the two types of life (Bios and Zoe) are not only different, but are utterly opposed to one another: Bios—the natural life inside us—tends to be self-centered; it’s basically an immature kind of life. Zoe—the supernatural life God wants for us—is the goal of creation from the beginning: it is the fully Trinitarian, fully mature life in Christ. This current life on earth, therefore, is one in which we in our natural/Bios selves are being challenged to be transformed into the supernatural/Zoe creatures God wills for us. We as naturally immature creatures, though, don’t like change: we want the pay-off, but don’t like the work that is necessary—sort of like what the sin of Adam was: he didn’t want to achieve wisdom and the likeness of God according to God’s timetable; he wanted it now—and hence the immature Adam sinned.

Gi Joe Commander 7

In any case, back to Lewis: he takes us back to our childhood, when we had dolls, or GI Joes, or in Lewis’ case, tin soldiers. Every child has fantasied about what it would be like if his toys came to life. Pretty cool, eh? Well Lewis says, “Look at it from your doll’s perspective—it wouldn’t seem so cool it the doll as you were in the midst of changing it into a real person—taking off the tin, or the plastic, and replacing it with real flesh, etc.!” In reality, from the doll’s perspective, it would seem you were killing it—doing away with the only kind of existence it had ever known. And quite naturally, the doll would probably resist, because it wouldn’t understand what was going on.

That, Lewis suggests, is what the process of salvation—the process of being transformed from a Bios creature to a Zoe creature—is like. That, in actuality, gives us a whole different perspective on the suffering we go through in this world. And that helps us understand the significance of Christ, for in Christ, God became biological/natural man—a tin soldier, if you will—and allowed himself to suffer the kind of transformation from a Bios creature to a Zoe creature, so that we—being the biological/natural “tin soldiers” that we are—could see and get an understanding of what was going on and what would be necessary to become Zoe creatures who can take part in the very life of God.

Or simply put: in Christ we see what is necessary in order for a tin soldier to become a real man: it not only explains Christ’s suffering, it also explains the necessity of suffering in this life as well.

Lewis then makes a final point in regards to where the tin soldier analogy breaks down. Yes, in Christ, God became “one tin soldier” in order to show us other “tin soldiers” how to become real men. But it doesn’t end there. In the analogy, each tin soldier remains separate. In reality though, humanity in interconnected: individuals that we are, we are still nonetheless part of one another on a biological level (isn’t that what evolution essentially points to, by the way?). Therefore, that should give us a glimpse to what is meant in the Bible that all will be one in Christ, so that God will be all in all; or that the Church is the body of Christ. Yes, it is metaphorical, but it points to a deeper reality regarding God’s relationship to all of creation.

In any case, the basic analogy in this chapter is simple: if you want to understand the out-working of salvation in history—both the history of the world and each individual’s personal history—the “tin soldier becomes a real man” is hard to beat. It certainly has kept things in perspective for me, especially when I’ve gone through periods of suffering.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Book 4:4–Good Infection

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Book 4:4–Good Infection

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In my previous post on C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity, I discussed Lewis’ take on the concept of eternity. In this post, I will now discuss Lewis’ attempt to explain the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Trying to explain the inner-relationship of the Trinity can be almost as difficult as discussing eternity—nevertheless, I think Lewis does a fairly good job. I starts by building on a few things he said regarding eternity and the triune life.

He asks the reader to imagine two books, one on top of the other, that have been that way for all eternity. The book on top would only be in its position because of the book below, but there was never a time when the book below caused the book on top to be in the position it is. Such is the situation when we discuss the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The Son is there because of the Father, but the Father did not bring the Son into being at any point. They, as their relationship, is eternal. This is similar to what we see in the Creeds, when it says that the Son was “begotten by the Father before all worlds”—thus taking this “begetting” into the realm of eternity.

In any case, Lewis says that there can be other ways to explain the relationship between the Father and Son, like light from a lamp, or heat from a fire, or thoughts from a mind—but they all fall short in one key aspect: none imply relationship. And at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity is the insistence on the relationality that exists within God Himself. The very phrase, “God is love,” can only be true if there are at least two persons involved. As Lewis says, “If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”

This relationality within God is what distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Other religions picture God as either an impersonal force or a personal yet distinct single person. But Christianity declares God is a Trinity. As Lewis says, “In Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”

I certainly don’t find such an idea to be irreverent. I find it to be revelatory, for it not only explains the reality of God, but it also explains what the goal of salvation is on a much more vivid scale. Since the eternal life in God takes place within the Trinity, we must realize that salvation is us being taken up into the very Trinitarian dance of God.  As Lewis says, “The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance.”

So how does that happen? Lewis takes us back to what he said in an earlier chapter about “making” and “begetting.” Currently, in our biological, natural state, we have been made—we are like statues in the form of a man, but we do not yet have God’s eternal Zoe life within us. Christ, though, the eternally-begotten one, has come into God’s sculptor shop we know as the world, and he intends to breathe that Zoe life onto God’s created “biological statues.” That is the work of the Holy Spirit—it echoes the image of God’s Spirit blowing over the waters in Genesis 1; it can be seen in the resurrected Christ breathing on the disciples in the upper room.

And the purpose of all this is to take up God’s creation into the life of the Trinity. In the Orthodox Church, they make a distinction in Genesis 1:27 when God says, “Let us make man in our image and likeness.” “Image” denotes human beings being created to reflect God’s character in creation—it denotes who we were created to be. Yet “likeness” is something we must develop and grow into as we continue in our relationship with God. Because of sin, we have failed to grow into the likeness of God. We, if you will, remain merely statues, but we are not yet fully human beings in the way God intended to be. Hence the role of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit: to take us from being mere creatures who are made in God’s image, to being sons of God, just as Christ is the Son of God, who share in the Trinitarian life of God, and who thus grow into maturity in Christ, in the full likeness of God.

Or as Lewis says, “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” It’s what Lewis calls, “Good infection.” Once you put your faith in Christ and receive the Holy Spirit, the process of being turned from a creature in God’s image to a Son in God’s likeness has begun.

Mere Christianity: C.S. Lewis Contemplates Eternity

Mere Christianity: C.S. Lewis Contemplates Eternity

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In Book 4:3 of Mere Christianity, in the chapter entitled, “Time and Beyond Time,” C.S. Lewis takes on a topic that simply cannot be grasped by the human mind: that of eternity. I remember when I saw Bill Maher’s movie, Religilous, there was a scene in which Maher was joking about how stupid it was for people to believe in a God who was able to listen to millions of prayers at the same time. Well, Lewis’ response to that sort of charge is this: the problem with such a view is that it still is putting God within the restrains of time. As soon as you say, “God is listening to all those prayers at the same time, then you’re not dealing with eternity—for eternity is not just “a really long period of time.”

This is something that is key to understand. As Lewis points out, we as human beings experience life within the bounds of time: there is a distinct order of past, present, and future to our existence and experience of life. But for God, who is outside of time, what we call “past,” “present,” and “future” are not past, present, and future to Him—they are simply “now.” (But even that isn’t totally true, for “now” carries with it a certain aspect of time). Perhaps it’s better to just say that past, present, and future for God…are just are.

Lewis’ point is that God is not constrained to the “time-stream” of this universe, any more than an author is constrained to the timeline of the book he/she is writing. That idea, if you think about it, is quite mind-blowing—it affects how you see how God sees you. Picture a timeline in this page: on it you see yourself at various stages of your life. You as a baby, a toddler, a grade-schooler, a high-schooler, in college, with a young family, as a retiree, in a nursing home, then on your death bed.

Now, the thing to realize is that God does not see you as you are at any one particular point in time. We see our lives unfolding, moment by moment—therefore, we cannot fully comprehend who we really are: we do not know what we’ll be like 30 years from now, and even when we look back at our childhood, we’ve forgotten probably 95% of our experiences. But God sees each one of us in our entirety: He sees the entire and full person of “Joel,” even though I cannot. In that sense, what I’ve realized is that as I go through my life and make decisions day to day, I am becoming the person I already am.

As Lewis says, as long as we are bound in time, we are confined to history—and that means we’ve lost much of the past, and we do not know the future. Because of that, we are not fully who our real selves are. But God on the other hand, “has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one.”

This also impacts how we see Christ. A lot of people have wondered how Jesus could be God, yet then come down into history, be born as a baby, and then live a life of about 30 years here on earth. During that time, who was running the universe? But as Lewis says, if we get a grasp of God and eternity, we have to realize that Christ’s time on earth—his walking, eating, sleeping, teaching—“is somehow included in His whole divine life.”

Conclusion

Trying to grasp time’s relation to eternity is ultimately too difficult for us. It’s something we cannot grasp with our intellect alone. Yet, I think it is something we do intuitively and experientially understand. Think of a time when you just “knew” something before it happened. My mom said she just “knew” that she was going to marry my dad the moment she first met him. I remember when I was visiting colleges as a kid, and I distinctly remember having a moment in the visitors dorm at Northwest Missouri State University, where I just “knew” I was going to go there.

And then we can all probably tell of experiences of what we call déjà vu—you just know “So-and so” is going to walk through that door…and then that person does. Strange as it may sound, I remember a time at a Chicago Cubs game with my brother: it was the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs were down by a run with guys on first and second and two outs. I forget who it was who was coming up to bat, but as he was coming up, I had an epiphany. I turned to my brother and said, “He’s going to hit a double down the right field line, and the guy is going to come around from first to win it.” And the next pitch, the batter hit a double down the right field line.

Things like that are inexplicable. I wonder, though, if they are indications to the fact that, even though we live our lives confined to time and history, moment by moment, that every now and then we get fleeting glimpses of eternity and how it intersects with history. I don’t know. But trying to contemplate eternity’s relation to history is certainly a challenge. It is bound to impact one’s understanding of God and our lives as individuals as well.

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: The Trinity (The Three-Personal God)

C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity: The Trinity (The Three-Personal God)

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In Lewis’ next chapter, entitled, “The Three-Personal God,” he expands on the Christian concept of the Trinity. He begins by pointing out something that most people probably overlook: of all the religions in the world, only Christianity offers any kind of glimpse as to what something “super-personal” looks like. Eastern religions, which are essentially pantheist, say God is ultimately non-personal—that ultimate reality is like the ocean, and that we as individuals are all like water drops. Eventually, we will be absorbed into the sea. Of course, as Lewis points out, “If that is what happens to us, then being absorbed is the same as ceasing to exist.”

By contrast, Lewis points out that only Christianity has “any idea of how human souls can be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves—in fact, be very much more themselves than they were before.” What exactly does that mean? Lewis provides an analogy that has stuck with me for 30 years. I think it is the best one, if you want to get even a glimpse of what “eternal life” is like. Here’s the analogy:

On a one-dimensional level, you can have a straight line. On a two-dimensional level, those lines can be combined in ways they couldn’t conceive in a one-dimensional world, and they could form a square. Moving on, on a three-dimensional level, those squares can be combined in yet more inconceivable ways for anyone living in a one-or-two-dimensional world, and could form a cube.

In our life in this natural world, we understand that one person is one being. I am me, and you are you. Perhaps we might get a fleeting glimpse of “two becoming one” in a strong, loving marriage—you know, the kind where the man and woman are so united that when one dies after 60 years of marriage, the very next day the other one passes away. Still, for the most part, in this world one person is one being, and we can’t really conceive of it any other way.

Lewis, though, suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity describes a “higher kind of life,” where you can have “a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube.” Let’s face it, if you were a square, and someone tried to tell you about the reality of a cube, that person might be able to draw something like this, cube-clipart-cube but what you’re looking at isn’t really a cube: it’s a two-dimensional illustrate of what a cube would look like. We get a general idea, but unless you step into a three-dimensional world, that drawing will still be beyond our understanding.

This leads Lewis to his next point, even though the Trinity is something that is ultimately beyond our intellectual understanding, that “Trinity-life” is there for us to experience: God (the Father) is the one we pray to, God (the Holy Spirit) is also the thing inside us urging us to pray, and God (the Son) is bridge or road along which we are pushed to that goal. It is, quite simply, experiential. The early Christians, after the resurrection of Christ and the experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, found themselves “caught up” in this new phenomenon—and it took time for them to articulate in theological terms just what they were experiencing.

You see Trinitarian language all over the New Testament, but it wasn’t articulated in some kind of “doctrine” yet. That was the job for later theologians to hammer out. Still, it is only a doctrine. I’m sure that the reality of God is much deeper and complex than even our doctrine of the Trinity can express. And even though our intellect, reason, and language can never fully grasp it, the fact is we can, and in fact do, experience God in this very way—it is on a personal level, and not merely analytical level. And that is why the best way to know God better is through relationships with other people. Remember, Paul himself likens the Church to organs in one body—it takes people who are “united together in a body, loving one another, helping one another, showing Him to one another.” Therefore, as Lewis says, the best “instrument” for learning about God is, in fact, the whole Christian community, working together, serving each other, and loving one another.

It is ultimately in the context of loving relationships that we not simply know God, but we experience Him. That is why, as Lewis says, “horrible nations have horrible religions: they have been looking at God through a dirty lens”—and the result is often inhumane treatment of the most vulnerable in society.

Trying to get your head around Trinitarian life is going to be a futile endeavor: you never will, fully. But you can “know” it on a relational level, through others who are trying to do the same. Is it a difficult concept? Of course. But Christian doctrine isn’t going to be easy. As Lewis states, “We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has not facts to bother about.”

For me, that’s one of the most intriguing things about Christianity: it’s quirky, and it’s hard to really grasp with my intellect alone. But what is points to can be seen in a thousand different ways in real life.

Want to better understand the Trinity? Sure, study some theology, but also look at a loving family and the inter-relationships within it, look at a vibrant church that is diverse yet unified. You get a better grasp of it when you are taken up into the Trinitarian life as is works out in everyday life.

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