Thursday, May 15, 2014

Was C.S. Lewis a Heretic?

In a recent guest post on Andy Gill's website, Tylor Standley offers a list of Christian luminaries who--by the standards currently invoked by some conservative Evangelicals--should be dubbed heretics.

It's a pretty effective post. The aim, of course, is not to encourage Evangelicals to "excommunicate" C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther, St. Augustine, Billy Graham, and others. Rather, it's to invite them to rethink the rigid criteria of Christian orthodoxy that they impose. Do you really want to adopt a standard of what it means to be a "true" Christian that's so narrow you'd do well to bar your children from reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, lest they be led to heresy?

I personally found the comments on the post as instructive in their way as the post itself. Rather than concede that these heroes of the faith would have to be judged heretical by the current standards so many Evangelicals impose, several commenters tried to rescue their heroes from the charges.

For example, Standley "accuses" Billy Graham of being an inclusivist--that is, a Christian who thinks that non-Christians might actually be saved. Why think that? Well, in a 1997 interview, Graham said, "They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven."

Just in case anyone doubts it, Standley links to a video in which Graham utters these words. A commenter responded by questioning the authenticity of the video, noting that "voices can be pretty easily impersonated." (Another commenter responded that they knew the quote was authentic because they wrote down his words when he said them.)

But of particular interest to me was the response to the claim the C.S. Lewis was an inclusivist (of the same sort as Graham) and that he denied the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement in favor of the Christus Victor theory. Standley points to The Chronicles of Narnia in support of both claims.

I don't want to get bogged down in the details of rival theories of the Atonement and the way that Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe reflects the Christus Victor view. The careful and systematic parallels between the Aslan-sacrifice story and the Christus Victor interpretation of the Christ's Atonement are vivid and unmistakable, as Greg Boyd nicely articulates here.

What interests me is that, rather than concede that a Christian might legitimately favor the Christus Victor theory, several people chose instead to challenge Standley's evidence for Lewis's supposed arguing that the Chronicles of Narnia are a work of fantasy fiction, not theology, and so cannot be taken as representing Lewis's actual theological views.


It is true, of course, that some fiction writers toy with worldviews not their own, and shape stories defined by ways of seeing things that they don't personally endorse. These aren't the stories that make believers out of people--usually they have a very different effect. But when Lewis wrote his children's fairy tales, he was quite deliberately shaping the fruits of his imagination and the form of the fairy tale into a Christian allegory. He wanted his books to be a mode of Christian education. And every Christian Evangelical out there knows as much. That's why they're so eager to have their kids read the Narnia books.

But just in case there's any doubt, Lewis told us as much himself. In a 1956 New York Times essay, "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's to Be Said," Lewis put it this way:
I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past certain inhibitions which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did I find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the suffering of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to... But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could. 
Lewis saw quite clearly the power of stories to shape the heart and to give rise to religious feeling. As such, he chose to put his storytelling to the service of his faith--using the form of the fairy tale to "steal past the watchful dragons" that keep children (and adults) from experiencing the real potency of Christian teachings.

Would he do this work in service of theological perspectives at odds with what he believed to be true? I suppose, in attempting to sever the connection between Lewis's fiction and his theology, you could make such a claim. But then you'd render Lewis something worse than a heretic.

There are plenty who have trouble with Lewis precisely because of what he admits to in the 1956 essay: He knows he can shape the hearts and minds of others through storytelling, and he sets out consciously to do so. Some think this is little better than religious brainwashing.

I think that's a harsh judgment. While there are reasons to worry about indoctrination of susceptible minds, I think every good story and every effective storyteller has a message that, precisely because of the emotive and immersive power of story, can "steal past the watchful dragons" and hit us in a new and transformative way. Whether that's a good or a bad thing depends a lot on the message and the motives of the messenger.

Imagine how much worse our judgment of Lewis would be if, instead of telling allegorical stories in support of what he believed, in order to nurture feelings of wonder and reverence in relation to what spurred those feelings within himself, Lewis was in the business of using the power of storytelling to serve messages he thought were false.

It seems to me that the defining feature of a propagandist is indifference to the truth. Propagandists want to cement the power of their political faction or increase sales of their product--and will propagate whatever message serves these goals. Storytellers who love the true and the good, and who tell a story that honestly express their vision of the true and the good, are a different creature altogether.

This is what I take Lewis to be. And if that's what you take him to be, then you can't dismiss the theological ideas that emerge so vividly in his stories. Yes, they are fantasy. Yes, they are fiction. But they are fantasy fiction with a purpose--and if you're convinced that the purpose is heretical, you don't do Lewis a favor by saying he didn't really mean it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Capital Punishment and the Christian Conscience

A couple of weeks ago, the ethics of capital punishment was pushed into the national spotlight by a botched execution here in Oklahoma. In the aftermath, here's something I noticed: When the horrific nature of the convict's death was mentioned, people were quick to point out the even more horrific nature of the crime.

Behind that move lies the retributive idea that it's intrinsically good to inflict suffering on wrongdoers, suffering that's proportionate to their offense.

But this is one idea that Jesus consistently challenged. As Christians--followers of Jesus--think about the death penalty, they would do well to ask, "Who would Jesus execute?" And although Jesus was Himself put to death by the state, He was never in a position to order an execution. So evidence of what Jesus would have done has to be more indirect.

Here, then, are some things for Christians to think about as they wrestle with the ethics of the death penalty: