Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: C. S. Lewis

Change and decay in all around I see

“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C.S. Lewis

It surely does seem that God is shouting at us right now. But what is He saying? Is he telling us to repent? Most likely that is part of it for most of us. But I can’t tell you what you need to repent of, that is a matter between you and God, No one else knows exactly what your need is.

What should be clear to everybody by now is that we have been trusting the wrong things. Money, jobs, health care, our own plans, all seem shaky now, not at all so sure and solid as we thought. One thing, one person, remains unchanged.

For I am the LORD, I change not (Malachi 3:6)

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses:
but we will remember the name of the LORD our God. (Psalm 30:6)

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me (Psalm 23:4)

The following hymn, written by Henry F. Lyte almost 200 years ago, is known throughout the English-speaking world. If anyone is thinking of singing something meaningful to strengthen and comfort folks in nursing homes, this hymn should be at the top of your list.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see—
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour;
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Treacle and wizards

If you have read Alice in Wonderland and other books of that era written in England, you have encountered the word treacle. It is not much used this side of the water.

Treacle has a history. It was originally a Greek word meaning an antidote for a poisonous animal bite. It migrated into Latin, then French and then English, carrying the original meaning all the way. Then in English the meaning gradually widened to mean medicine of any kind, then to a sweetener added to medicine to disguise the taste, and finally just the sweet stuff itself: syrup or molasses. From there, it developed the analogous meaning of cloying sentimentality.

Cloying is interesting in itself. Oxford defines it as excessively sweet or sentimental, Cloy originates from the same Lain root that produced clé (key) and clou (nail) in French. The only connection between cloy, clé and clou that comes to my mind is the idea of fastening something. Thus, in my mind, something cloying is syrupy sweet and hard to get rid of.

To illustrate where my line of thought is going, here is a quote from Louisa May Alcott:
“People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don’t sell nowadays.”

I believe the part that people don’t want to be preached at has always been true. The answer is not to forget about writing anything with a moral message. Good writers, inspired writers, have found ways to demonstrate moral truths without preaching.

There are Christian books, stories and poems for children from the Victorian era that some Christian people think are wonderful. It must be an acquired taste, the result of being exposed to that kind of literature all through one’s childhood. I wasn’t; I can’t stand those books and I suspect most non-Christians would find them as sickeningly sweet and meaningless as I do,

The writers are preaching, they have a message, a spiritual lesson, that they are trying to convey. To avoid anyone finding the message distasteful they slather it with treacle. The better way would have been to leave out the treacle and make the characters and the circumstances more believable. The characters are more like cardboard cutouts than living people. I wonder if those who have been fed a steady diet of such treacle really have much idea how a real person responds to the gospel.

There is not much of a market for morality, but there is a market for a well told story about believable people who face real life problems. Let the writer weave in moral and spiritual truth; that is not at all fatal in the marketplace. Think of the popularity of books like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and the books from George MacDonald and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Some Christians don’t want their children to read such books because they are fantasy. I think of them this way – children know the world is a mysterious and dangerous place, that bad things happen for no apparent reason. It’s no good raising children on books that pretend everything is always going to work out for the best, because real life doesn’t work that way.

The value in the books by Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien is that they acknowledge that evil is very present in the world, but show that there is also a supernatural good present in the world that can triumph for those that trust in it. These books do not explicitly mention God, yet His presence is implicit. Other books about good and evil are popular in our day, but they show the good side triumphing by using the same tactics as the evil side. Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien never do that, evil behaves in an evil way, good triumphs by trusting in the power of good.

That is a real life lesson that children need to hear and learn. It is not taught by treacle, nor by wizards that rely on the powers of darkness.

The pen of the wise

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Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I begin every day by meeting God, first in His Word, then in prayer. My French Bible is on a shelf just above the computer monitor. Most often I read and hear gentle reminders of things I know, but which are always in need of reinforcement. The strength I receive from this quiet time helps me through the day, even if the words I read seldom come to mind.

Some mornings are different. It’s afternoon now and the message of Proverbs 15:2 is still turning around in my mind, like a cat looking for the most comfortable position to settle down. I have three French Bibles on that shelf, all translations I believe to be trustworthy. One word is different in two of them, but the sense is still the same: The tongue of the wise makes knowledge attractive.

Well, of course. That’s so obvious. I knew that already. But did I really? Have I really got it yet? Why do I so naturally slip into teachy-preachy mode, reproaching others for not understanding things that seem so obvious to me?

That’s why people love to read C. S. Lewis. It’s like sitting down to visit with an old friend about everyday things. After the visit, you realize you have learned something important, without ever feeling like you were being taught. There is nothing bombastic about his writing style; no hint of: “You need to listen to what I say because I am important.”

Blaise Pascal was like that, too. He set out to write a defence of Christian faith, knowing how difficult it would be: “People despise Christian faith. They hate it and are afraid that it may be true.  The solution for this is to show them, first of all, that it is not unreasonable, that it is worthy of reverence and respect. Then show that it is attractive, making good men desire that it were true. Then show them that it really is true. It is worthy of reverence because it really understands the human condition. It is also attractive because it promises true goodness.”

Pascal died young, before he could complete the book he wanted to write. All he left behind was scraps of paper on which he had written his thoughts. His friends collected those thoughts into a book; Les Pensées has become a classic of French literature on the same level as Pilgrim’s Progress in English.

I have four copies of Les Pensées (the thoughts) of Blaise Pascal, in French and in English. Each editor had his own idea of the way Pascal wanted his thoughts ordered. None of them agree. It doesn’t matter. Each time I read a few of those scraps of paper Pascal left behind I am struck with how simple Christian truth appears from his hand, his mind—and how profound.

And Wow! This is how it’s done. This is how one makes truth attractive.

Is possible for me to learn this?

The abolition of sin in children’s literature

Nowadays the lead character in a highly acclaimed book for children is apt to be a lesbian who is a practicing Wiccan. Parents have been banished from children’s books for many years, but are making a comeback in situations where a child has two mothers or two fathers. But any mention of God, Christianity or morality makes a book far too dangerous for young children.

Perhaps this started in a small way many years ago. The fairy tales of Charles Perrault, from the 18th century, were morality tales. When Little Red Riding Hood got into bed with the wolf, that was the end of her. Perrault made it clear at the end that he was thinking of wolves of the two-legged, smooth talking kind. In Cinderella, the heroine forgave her two stepsisters and found good husbands for them. Perrault’s point was that true beauty is not on the outside, but inside, in the heart. Those moral teachings disappeared in the versions of the Grimm brothers that appeared 100 years later. Little Red Riding Hood was miraculously rescued and Cinderella was well rid of her mean stepsisters.

Children’s books that depicted the value of moral purity and respect for parents went out of fashion years ago. Modern books are teaching a whole different sense of values.

On the other side are the type of conservative Christian children’s books where sin and evil have become unmentionable. Tender and sensitive children must be protected from such awful things. Many parents who think like that would be appalled to see what their children read a few years later.

Even Bible story books are getting the makeover to supposedly make themn less scary to children. David doesn’t kill Goliath, he just defeats him. The Bible says that David didn’t stop with stunning the giant with a stone from his sling, he cut his head off. That is not just gratuitous blood and gore, David did not want to see the giant get up from the ground and seek revenge. He wanted to be sure that he was well and truly dead. We need to do the same with the things that tempt us.

By either denying that anything is sinful or pretending that sin is something about which little children should have no knowledge, neither extreme prepares children to navigate the dangers and temptations of life. Children realize from quite a young age that the world is a scary place. How do we explain the dangers in the world in a way that helps them know to avoid evil and trust in the good?

C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and others have endeavoured to answer this question by creating a genre of Christian fantasy for children. As fantasies they portray dangers in a way that is not explicit, but shows that there are dangerous unseen forces in the world. Children can relate to that. Even more importantly, these books always show that evil can be overcome. The good guys in these fantasies never use the methods of the bad guys in order to win, in itself a very important lesson that is not characteristic of books like Harry Potter.

Another book in the genre is Hari & Rudi in the Land of Fruit, by English author Andrew Ratcliffe. It was published earlier this year and is available from Amazon.

 

Chapter 4 – Scenes from my childhood

I was three and a half years old the first time my parents moved. In the house we were leaving there was a telephone at the bottom of the stairs near the front door. It was on a party line rural phone system and I believe I had been frightened by this box on the wall that would suddenly make a loud ringing noise and sometimes my parents would feel summoned to go and talk into it and other times they would ignore it. This day I caught on that the box was no  longer a threat. I pulled a chair over to the phone, stood on it, picked up the receiver, turned the crank and began chattering into it. My parents had to drag me away when it was time to leave.

Dad had sold his homestead farm just south of the western end of Old Wives Lake and bought another farm just past the east end of the lake. Memories of early childhood are tricky – it is not easy to separate what I remember from what I have been told so many times that I think I remember it. I believe there is a fuzzy memory of the ride to our new home that is genuine and that I was told later that our family vehicle at that time was a 30’s era Buick sedan, chopped off behind the front seat and converted into a pickup.

One day the next spring, when my mother was planting the garden and I was lying in the shade of a spreading maple tree, the breeze carried a sweet scent such as I had never known before. I searched for its source and found a patch of flowers with delicate petals having rings of pastel colours. I knelt on the ground and leaned close to breathe in the fragrance and the intricate beauty of the flowers. Then I ran to ask my mother what they could be. She called them Sweet Williams.

C. S. Lewis wrote that such memories are given by God to make us homesick for heaven. Certainly my childish wonder at the beauty of the flowers and their perfume has not been repeated in this life.

When I was four our dog Penny would not let me walk to the barn. Whichever way I turned to get around him,he would always be in front of me. I think I cried in frustration and my mother came to my rescue and explained that it wasn’t safe for me to go out among the cattle.

Penny was a black and white land race collie and every farm seemed to have one. He was as big as I was and a gentle protector. Many years later my mother said that whenever she wanted to apply some discipline to me she had to ensure that there was a closed door between us and Penny.

A couple of years later I started school, walking a mile each way along the fence line into the little village of Bishopric to attend a one room school. Bishopric was a company town, all the houses, the school, the store and the railway station were built of brick and owned by the company that operated the Sodium Sulphate plant.

We lived in an area of rolling hills that rise up from the plains a few miles south of Moose Jaw and extend to the US border, known as the Coteau Hills or the Missouri Coteau. The buffalo wintered here years ago, drawing Lakota, Nakota and Cree hunters and later Métis.

Not far from us there was a little town called Ardill located on the side of a steep hill. One of the members of the crew who built the road up this hill was an Englishman who dropped his h’s. He called it an ‘ard ‘ill and the name stuck. One winter day we were trying to get to Mossbank and the hill was icy. We got about two thirds of the way up and lost traction. The truck began to slowly slide backwards, edging ever closer to the ditch, then gently laid over on its side in the snow. Dad helped my mother and me climb out the driver’s door and we walked a mile back to the nearest farm, where our relatives Ed and Julia Ludke lived. Ed and Dad went out with the tractor and righted the pickup and got it turned around.

There were no churches nearby. We once attended a service held in a country school house. My Dad must not have approved of the preacher, for we never went again. I don’t think we had family devotions in those first years. As soon as I could write, my parents enrolled me in Sunday School by correspondence and I dutifully did my lesson every week and sent it in. That was my introduction to the stories and themes of the Bible.

Sin

“Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders..”

“Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men: We acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings.”

These quotations come from the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church of Canada. The first is part of the confession in the Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer services. The second is from the confession in the Communion Service. The capitalization is the way it was in the book. For ten years in my youth I, along with the whole congregation,  recited one or the other of these confessions aloud every Sunday.

These are only words printed in a book, readily memorized and often pronounced without giving much thought to them. Still, for those with ears to hear and hearts to consider, they were a constant reminder that we are miserable sinners and there is no health in us.

We can dismiss those words as meaningless rote recital. For many people that was all they were. But have we gained in spirituality when most churches today hardly talk of sin?

C.S. Lewis discovered 75 years ago that most people he talked to had no concept of sin. Many of the things that churches have always named as major sins did not seem to be sin at all to people. They had been educated out of that old-fashioned notion. Some way had to be found to deliver the diagnosis that all people are sinners before they would have any inclination to hear of a remedy for sin.

“I cannot offer you a water-tight technique for awakening the sense of sin. I can only say that, in my experience, if one begins from the sin that has been one’s own chief problem during the last week, one is very often surprised at the way the shaft goes home. But whatever method we use, our constant effort must be to get their mind away from public affairs and ‘crime’ and bring them down to brass tacks — to the whole network of spite, greed, envy, unfairness and conceit in the lives of ‘ordinary decent people’ like themselves (and ourselves).” (C.S. Lewis, from a talk given in 1945, reprinted in God in the Dock ©1970, published by Eerdmans.)

That is very much the challenge that faces us today. If we are not conscious of our own sin and sinfulness, we won’t get very far in trying to share the gospel with others. James admonishes us: “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.” How often do we do that? How often do we talk about other people’s faults?

The Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church in the USA and most congregations of the Church of England no longer use the Book of Common Prayer. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, Anglican Churches are fast-growing evangelical bodies. They have broken fellowship with the Anglican and Episcopal churches in Canada and the USA.

Ten years ago the Anglican Church of Canada commissioned a study on their future. The conclusion was that if present trends continue, in 75 years the Anglican Church of Canada will consist of two members.The trend has continued, and will continue. A church that no longer acknowledges sin has no reason for its existence. The Anglican Church of  Nigeria is now planting congregations in North America, including one in Saskatoon.

I am an Anabaptist today, not an Anglican. I am just trying to point out a graphic illustration of what happens to a church that decides to drop the issue of sin. That is a danger for all of us. We are not apt to ever make a decision to drop it, we just let it fade away. In such a condition, we no longer have a gospel to present to our neighbours — or our children.

Have we misdiagnosed the problem?

It is at least 50 years since C.S. Lewis wrote: “The greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin . . . We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect then to welcome the news of the remedy.” (from God in the Dock, published by Eerdmans.)

The evangelism methods of 100 years ago still work quite well in many places in third world countries. Not so well in North America and Europe. In fact, hardly at all. Why, they don’t even seem to have a lot of impact on children raised in Christian homes.

Evangelicals have responded in various ways: We have to try harder; We have to make our approach more seeker-friendly; We have to avoid those parts of the gospel message that people find offensive.

Have we misdiagnosed the problem? People have been told for the last 100 years, by people calling themselves Christian, that it is the society around us that needs fixing; people aren’t sinners, the world we live in is sinful. Fix the world and we can all live like Christ wants us to live.

There is now a continual hubbub around us of people trying to save the world. And it seems that they are in a constant state of outrage towards those who don’t wholeheartedly endorse their project for fixing the world. If one steps back a moment to observe, it all goes to prove that people are indeed sinners. The anger, hatred, harassment and violence that comes forth from attempts to save the world actually prove the need for the message of the gospel.

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.  But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. (James 3:13-18)

Book review: Humble Roots

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Hannah Anderson is the wife of a country pastor in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia who finds inspiration for her writing in her garden and other growing things.

This book helped me understand why I have always felt uncomfortable when Christians talk about their humility. She tells us that “Show, don’t tell,” one of the cardinal rules of effective writing, should also apply to humility. If we have to tell people that we are humble, we probably aren’t. If people cannot see evidence of humility in our lives, there’s no use telling them we are humble.

She quotes C.S. Lewis: “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell them the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud.” Pride can corrupt our attempts at humility. We talk about feeling unworthy, about how undeserving we are, and all the while what we are really doing is drawing attention to ourselves.

In the book, Hannah Anderson says:”Humility is not feeling a certain way about yourself, not feeling small or low or embarrassed or even humiliated. Theologically speaking, humility is a proper understanding of who God is and who we are as a result.”

I highly recommend this book; it confronts the realities of life in a gentle, down to earth, and often humorous manner and leaves you with an important message to chew on.

© 2016 by Hannah Anderson, published by Moody Publishers.

Are we passive Christians or active Christians?

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.

-C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Memories of future bliss

“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

– C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

I was probably about five years old, it was a hot summer’s day with only the slightest breeze. I had found the shade of a spreading maple tree near where my mother was working in the garden. Wafted on that gentle breeze came a scent that I had never noticed before, a scent sweeter than anything I had ever known. I searched for the source of that scent and found it in patch of delicate, exquisitely beautiful flowers. When I asked my mother, she told me they were Sweet Williams. That instant in time, the scent, the beauty, has lingered in the deep recesses of my memory all these years. Sweet Williams still bring back memories of that moment, yet never quite the fullness of the transcendent beauty of that moment.

Isn’t this what C. S. Lewis meant by “images of what we really desire”? These instants when natural beauty and events take on a character beyond their earthly nature are given to remind us that this earth is not really our home. They feed a longing within us for something unknown, something beyond knowing. That something is what the Bible calls heaven.

To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, our physical hunger indicates that there must somewhere be something that we can eat to satisfy that hunger. In the same way, our hunger for paradise indicates that there must somewhere exist a real paradise that we can hope to someday reach. Many will scoff at that, say it is far too simplistic, we must work to make this earth a paradise. To which I will simply ask: when have men ever succeeded in making an earthly paradise that satisfied that inner longing for paradise?

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