The Bishop of Durham takes on Lewis but the Bee Gets the Honey
N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham who became a hero to Evangelicals while debunking the Jesus Seminar and became a heretic for questioning...well, I'm not sure exactly what it was, but some sort of technical theological point that is regarded as incredibly important by some theologians that I greatly admire, has written an excellent review of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity.
Wright recently published his own version of a basic primer on what Christianity is all about at the most essential level entitled, Simply Christian. I haven't quite finished it, but have enjoyed it so far. You won't find his alleged heresies peeking out in this work. His essay, entitled "Simply Lewis" was published in Touchstone Magazine's March 2007 issue. He pays appropriate homage to Lewis for a work that has impacted the lives of literally millions of Christians looking to understand their faith and of seekers who were brought into the faith by Lewis's masterpiece. He gives full marks to Lewis for his engaging style and how even his archaic language (now, not then) is not bothersome. But he also asks some insightful questions, such as why does Lewis fail to deal with the resurrection (Wright has no answer on this point and admits this still baffles him).
I read Mere Christianity just as I was embarking on my journey of exploration and rebellion against the narrow constraints of the faith I was raised with. I had heard so much about it that as I picked it up I dared Lewis to convince of what I had already known and draw me back from my tentative forays into existentialism. Admittedly, not the best attitude with which to read a book, but then again Lewis is the master apologist of the twentieth century, the atheist whose project to prove his atheism led to his conversion. Instead, Lewis pushed me firmly into the arms of Nietzsche. (O.K. so he wasn't pushing alone. Honors Intro Philosophy and the assigned Genealogy of Morals helped.) So, these many years later, I still wonder what's wrong with me when a friends begins the obligatory rave about the greatness that is Mere Christianity.
Needless to say, I love and respect Lewis. His fiction is among my absolute favorite. I'll even risk offending those of you who have not already totally written me off and say that I prefer Narnia to Middle-Earth. And Lewis's writings form a large part of the foundation of John Piper's Christian Hedonism which rescued me from "Open Theism" (that will have to be another post). However, as Bishop Wright put words and logic to the objections I had felt 13 years ago, I have to admit to feeling a little validated. Yeah, that's what I didn't get. There's a place I too felt unsatisfied in Lewis's argument.
I still love Lewis. The humility with which he writes is endearing (as Wright notes). And he doesn't pretend to be a professional theologian -- though he does engage in serious theology more than he lets on in MC. And I with Wright praise God for all those who have been brought to faith in Christ through MC. I do, however, appreciate Wright putting words to my thoughts on MC. I could write my own critique, but the good Bishop has done me a favor of writing it more eloquently and more reasoned than I could ever have done. So instead I point you to his.
Two particular passages I'd like to point out:
I am well aware that some in our day, too, see the historical context of Jesus as part of what you teach Christians later on rather than part of how you explain the gospel to outsiders. I think this is simply mistaken. Every step towards a de-Judaized Jesus is a step away from Scripture, away from Christian wisdom, and out into the world of . . . yes, Plato and the rest, which is of course where Lewis partly lived. If you don’t put Jesus in his proper context, you will inevitably put him in a different one, where he, his message, and his achievement will be considerably distorted.
I think this is amazingly well-said. If Jesus is divorced from his historical context, he is no longer Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Savior of the world. Wright goes on, however, to insert some of his reading of the "New Perspective on Paul" to suggest some things I find questionable until I can do further study such as that Jesus in claiming to be able to forgive sins was not claiming to be God but was offering in the streets what could only be gotten at the Temple. Wright says this historical misreading undermines Lewis's Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument.
In amongst his treatment of incarnation and Cross, we note, along with the astonishing omission of Easter, the complete absence of anything to do with Jesus’ announcement of God’s kingdom. This is less surprising, though still regrettable, because, to be frank, the Western church in the middle of the twentieth century simply didn’t understand what the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching was all about—again, at least in part, because of its relentless de-Judaizing of the whole story.
Thanks Bishop Wright!
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