C.S. Lewis on Self-Obsession and Hell :: Weekend Reading List

“His tone is a key to the success,” Robert Fulford writes of C. S. Lewis. Perhaps because Lewis’ built his career in academic writing, the vivid imagery he is known for is matched only by his literary precision and clarity in voice. Fulford continues:

It’s outspoken, often blunt, and clearly directed to those who possess little or no religious knowledge. It deploys his great talents as storyteller and arguer, always in a way that makes Christianity seem a common sense solution to the world’s most basic questions.

As a Christian writer, Lewis was strikingly ecumenical. He swept aside any special sectarian theology and devoted himself to the core belief, as he saw it — that’s what he means by “mere” in his title. He may have taken this position because he was dismayed by the sectarian hatred in his birthplace, Belfast, but it’s just as likely that he wanted his work to reach anyone who might conceivably be converted.

Lewis’s tone of blunt, yet friendly, intellectualism reflects his care for the unconvinced. He speaks as one who had been an outsider to faith himself, having returned to faith after seventeen years of what he defined as self-absorbed atheism. The return was partly due to discussions with his Oxford colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Yet it was not just the like-minded with whom Lewis connected—and theological similarity was not always a predictor of fraternity. Fulford describes Lewis’s relationship with two famous students—John Betjeman, poet laureate in the 1970s, and Kenneth Tynan, the most brilliant drama critic of his time. Betjeman, a conservative religious man, despised Lewis. Tynan, a radical left-winger, admired him and remained grateful for his encouragement.

“Lewis was that rare sort of genius, able to combine high theological insight with vivid imagination, and it is precisely this coming-together that makes his writing so memorable,” says Bishop Robert Barron.

It’s Lewis’ use of vibrant pictures—stirring images of what could otherwise be cerebral spiritual matters—that casts the longest shadow. Of the imagery around hell in The Great Divorce, Bishop Barron writes:

When the narrator, in dialogue with a heavenly spirit, wonders where precisely Hell is in relation to the heavenly realm, the spirit bends down, pulls a single blade of grass and uses its tip to indicate a tiny, barely perceptible, fissure in the ground. “That’s where you came in,” he explains. All of Hell, which seemed so immense to the narrator, would fit into a practically microscopic space in Heaven. Lewis is illustrating here the Augustinian principle that sin is the state of being incurvatus in se (curved in around oneself). It is the reduction of reality to the infinitely small space of the ego’s concerns and preoccupations.

This is a picture Lewis expands in his masterful Preface to Paradise Lost. Lewis points out Milton’s brilliance in making hell look boring. Far too many accounts of hell, Lewis felt, make it a place of intrigue. Instead Milton paints hell as a place of profound dullness. Lewis writes:

He meets Sin—and states his position. He sees the Sun; it makes him think of his own position. He spies on the human lovers; and states his position…. He journeys round the whole earth; it reminds him of his own position. The point need not be labored.

Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace “all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.” Satan has been in the Heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.

It may be said that Adam’s situation made it easier for him, than for Satan, to let his mind roam. But that is just the point. Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament.

Certainly, he has no choice. He has chosen to have no choice. He has wished to ‘be himself’, and to be in himself and for himself, and his wish has been granted. The Hell he carries with him is, in one sense, a Hell of infinite boredom.

To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography. Yet the choice is possible. Hardly a day passes without some slight movement towards it in each one of us. That is what makes Paradise Lost so serious a poem.

“Hell is just – other people,” says Paul Bowles in Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous 1944 play about captive souls, No Exit. Lewis disagreed with his contemporary. In his view, hell is not other people. Rather, hell is the lack of any other with whom to be concerned. Hell is imprisoning ourselves within ourselves.

Bishop Barren concludes, “Love, on the contrary, which is the very life of Heaven, is the opening to reality in its fullness; it amounts to a breaking through of the buffered and claustrophobic self.”

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 18 (Listen – 3:40)
Mark 4 (Listen – 5:01)

This Weekend’s Reading
Jeremiah 19 (Listen – 2:58) Mark 5 (Listen – 5:21)
Jeremiah 20 (Listen – 3:07) Mark 6 (Listen – 7:23)

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Acts of Faith :: Throwback Thursday

By Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

And [Jesus] looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart. — Mark 3.5

For who will deny that true religion consists, in a great measure, in vigorous and lively actings of the will and the fervent exercises of the heart?

We see the world of mankind exceedingly busy and active—and their affections are the springs of motion. It is affection that engages the covetous man and him that is greedy of worldly profits; it is by his affections the ambitious man is put forward the pursuit of worldly glory; and the affections also actuate the voluptuous man in his pleasure and sensual delights. The world agitates in pursuit of these things.

As in worldly things, where worldly affections are very much the spring of men’s motion and action, so in religious matters: the spring of their actions are very much religious affections. Those who have doctrinal knowledge and speculation only—without affection—are never engaged in true religion.

The things of religion take hold of men’s souls no further than they affect them. There are multitudes who hear the word of God—things infinitely great and important and which are of immediate concern—and yet it seems to be wholly ineffectual upon their lives. The reason is that they are not affected with what they hear.

The Scriptures place religion very much in the affection of love: love to God and the Lord Jesus Christ; love to the people of God and to mankind. So holy desire—exercised in longings, hunger and thirst after God, and personal holiness—is often mentioned in Scripture as an important part of true religion.

The Scriptures speak of holy joy as a great part of true religion. Religious sorrow, mourning, and brokenness of heart are also frequently spoken of as a great part of true religion. These things are often mentioned as distinguishing qualities of the true saints and a great part of their character.

Another affection often mentioned is gratitude—especially as exercised in thankfulness and praise to God. The Holy Scriptures frequently speak of compassion, mercy, and zeal as essential in true religion.

The Scriptures represent true religion as being summarily comprehended in love: the chief of the affections and the fountain of all others. And surely it is such vigorous and fervent love—which Christ represents as the sum of all religion—when he speaks of loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

*Abridged, adapted, and language updated from A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 17 (Listen – 4:50)
Mark 3 (Listen – 3:41)


Through the Faith of Another

And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. — Mark 2.4

Near the middle of the 13th century Thomas Aquinas assembled a remarkable commentary on the Scriptures entitled Catena Aurea. The Saint quotes the works of over 80 church fathers—curating a work that is not only remarkably diverse, but also revealing of Aquinas’ own perspective.

Aquinas begins his commentary of the paralytic, whose friends cut a hole in a roof to lower him before Christ, with the arresting observation, “The desire of hearing Him was stronger than the toil of approaching Him.”

We, in the western world, do not have to toil to reach much of anything. Toil is understood as inefficiency which ought be eliminated. When it comes to faith we are then faced with a myriad of realities: It’s not toilsome to press a few buttons on our phones to read a devotional, but what happens when living our faith becomes costly? How our hearts recoil when they need to suffer a bit for the sake of another.

Aquinas’ commentary continues to follow the young men as they carry their friend to Christ:

Finding the door blocked up by the crowd, they could not by any means enter that way. Those who carried him, however, hoping that he could merit the grace of being healed, raising the bed with their burden, and uncovering the roof, lay him with his bed before the face of the Savior.

There follows: “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

He did not mean the faith of the sick man, but of his bearers; for it sometimes happens that a man is healed by the faith of another.

The mens’ action was remarkably toilsome. Aside from digging through the layers of an ancient roof, they likely faced the scorn of the homeowner, the cost (and possibly labor) of repair, not to mention the disdain of the religious leaders who were only there to begrudge Christ.

We are remarkably efficient at performing real time cost-benefit analysis. Yet we are also surrounded by people whose lives could be transformed by the toil of our faith. Like Aquinas, our voice can be shaped by the multitude of the faithful who walked before us—a cloud of witnesses encouraging us to toil on behalf of others.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 16 (Listen – 3:52)
Mark 2 (Listen – 3:55)


A Plunge into the Unknown

[Jesus proclaimed,] “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” — Mark 1.15

How Jesus’ command to “repent and believe in the gospel” is interpreted significantly shapes what day-to-day faith looks like. For moralists, the command is a linear progression: repent of moral fault and then believe (e.g. pray a prayer of some sort). This understanding leads to a lifetime of confronting outsiders with a perspective on morality in order to trigger a moment of belief.

Legalists interpret Jesus’ words as an circular process. Repentance is limited to a list of modern actions, based upon interpretation of Scripture, that must be confessed each and every time there has been a transgression. Belief is an instrument of guilt for transgressors and an instrument of pride for those whose list of moral interpretations has not been violated.

Jesus words aren’t referring to a momentary decision nor an infinite loop of guilt and pride. When we read them together they describe the recursive act of faith.

“Repent and believe in the gospel.” In other words, you already believe in other things for your own goodness, worth, and freedom—turn your back on those things. Stop counting on your financial status for security and on your job for identity—repent and believe in the gospel. Stop looking to your own power and past success to thrive—repent and believe the gospel.

British philosopher Alan Watts explains the difference between belief and faith:

In general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes.

Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.

The opposite of believing the gospel isn’t disbelief, it’s unfaithfulness. You can fully “believe” the gospel and yet rest none of your faith inside of it. To repent and believe the gospel is to divest one’s faith from everything in the world except Christ.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 15 (Listen – 3:49)
Mark 1 (Listen – 5:05)


Hope In Times of Terror

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.” — Matthew 28.5-6

If, as Jill Lepore has said, “watching people shoot one another has become an obligation of American citizenship,” then watching people around the world weep in the wake of terror has become an obligation of global citizenship.

We want to look away. Every few weeks I spend a day writing from a coffee shop nestled 8,200’ up in the Rocky Mountains. Inside The New York Times gets stacked upside down whenever images of terror take over above the fold. After watching, I realized it’s not the employees, but the customers who reposition the paper.

Jesus did not look away. When faced with the brutality of death, Jesus walked toward it—and wept. We must reflect on this—God, broken with us at the brutality and injustice of our world.

Then—when everyone thought it was too late and that God had, yet again, missed his opportunity to make everything alright—he called out Lazarus from the grave. What was lost was restored. Injustice of death’s sting replaced by the celebration of resurrection.

And so we cling to this hope. English poet George Herbert said the promise of resurrection is that death is no longer an executioner, but a gardener. “When he tries to bury you, he’s really planting you, and you’re going to come up better than before.”

And so, for today—for a world shattered by terror—a meditation from from Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

Pause and reflect.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Pause and reflect.

“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Pause and reflect.

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 14 (Listen – 3:51)
Matthew 28 (Listen – 2:39)