book review

The Brilliance of CS Lewis

Lately I’ve been looking for a single author to be my somewhat life study. I’ve considered John Piper, whom has greatly shaped my life. I’ve also considered Abraham Kuyper. From all I’ve read in biographies about Kuyper, I’m intrigued by his blending of Calvinism into public life. As an aside, Kuyper may be, at least for me, one that is best read in biographies rather than in his actual writings, as I’ve tried twice now to give his books a shot, and twice I have put them down.
So who to give my reading attention to?
Well today, I’m giving CS Lewis a try. I’ve dabbed in Lewis for his books on suffering and enjoyed them, and I know Tim Keller (who I deeply love) is greatly shaped by Lewis, so I decided to  try another Lewis work, perhaps one of lesser known works. I picked The Abolition of Man.

After sitting and sharing every page I just read with Julee, because I’m amazed at Lewis’ ability to see the deeper issues, I thought I should record two bits of his brilliance.
(Below, Gaius and Titius are pseudonyms of authors who Lewis is critiquing)

ON UNCONSCIOUS SHAPING

The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all. The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.

Lewis, C. S.. The Abolition of Man (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 6-7). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The sum of it: Inconsequential ideas still have consequences, for they tread paths in our way-of-thinking that future (and perhaps much bigger) issues travel down.

ON DEFENDING AGAINST FALSE SENTIMENTS

I think Gaius and Titius [who Lewis is critiquing] may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda— they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental— and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

Lewis, C. S.. The Abolition of Man (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 14-15).

The sum of it:  Protection against false loves is not done best by removing love altogether, but by being filled with right loves.

INTRODUCTION – Black Holes

INTRODUCTION – A SUMMARY

In this chapter of “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed”, Austin Fischer  lays out his agenda in writing this book:

“theology and biography belong together. We try to make sense of God as we try to make sense of our own stories, our own lives. As such, theology is meant for participants, not spectators. I write as a participant and not a spectator in the hope it will help you become a better participant in your own theological journey, wherever it takes you.” (p.3)

That “wherever” of course is meant to be swayed by Fischer’s own theological experience and understanding. He makes it very clear where he hopes his perspective will take the reader:

“But I believe we best say yes to God’s glory and sovereignty by saying no to Calvinism. I believe that I— along with many others, past and present— have found an even better option. It’s not new, and it’s not novel; indeed I would argue it is simply the historic consensus of the church. But correctly understood, it offers the greatest hope for a restless church. Unlike Calvinism, it doesn’t replace the black hole of self with the black hole of deity, making both God and the Bible impossible (more on that later); however, it does offer an infinitely glorious God, a crucified Messiah, and a cross-shaped call to follow Jesus. “

Here’s my takeaway from this chapter:

1) GIFT WITH WORDS

The author is a gifted writer and makes reading this book a joy. He has a way with words. For example:

“We are black holes—walking, talking pits of narcissism, self-pity, and loneliness, pillaging the world around us in a desperate attempt to fill the void inside us.”

“The universe-altering message of the gospel becomes a message about me: Jesus died so I can be happy and comfortable forever and ever. While this may pass for gospel in many circles, there is a growing swell of opposition to it in many others—a recognition that such thin, therapeutic, self-centered expressions of Christianity lack the gravitas to hold a human life  together, much less make it thrive.”

“When sin within rises, chaos without descends, confusion all around lays waste to any semblance of comprehension—when I don’t feel like I understand a damn thing— I look up there and I understand enough to say thank you.”

2) A GRACIOUS TONE

In seeking to persuade against a “reformed” or “Calvinistic” theology, I appreciate the tone of grace in his words. This is not common in such hotly disputed debates:

“I feel much the same when I talk to people about Calvinism, because while I think you could put a ring on her and live happily ever after, I also think there’s someone better out there. On top of that, it’s a shame to be known for what you’re against, so for clarity’s sake, I’m not trying to get anyone to not be something (a Calvinist), but to be something.”

3) CALVINISM: INCOMPATIBLE WITH THE CROSS

The ultimate problem Fischer has with what Calvinism teaches is that he finds it incompatible with the message of love, and for Fischer, love is at the center of the cross. He says:

“[Speaking of love] So when someone messes with this picture , adding a cryptic backdrop that threatens to stain the whole thing, I’m against the backdrop only because I’m for the picture I think the backdrop ruins. I’m not against the Calvinist picture of God so much as I am grieved by what that picture does to the picture I love, turning the full-truth of Golgotha into a duplicitous half-truth. The rest of this book is a description of what happened when my Calvinism was subjected to the searing scrutiny of that image, in the hopes you might glimpse the terrifyingly beautiful God of Jesus Christ.”

I’m anxious to read how Calvinism does not give us a “glimpse of the terrifying beautiful God of Jesus Christ” and how a different interpretation of the scripture does. This is especially interesting because those that love the doctrines of grace love it for this very fact – they claim it gives us the clearest beauty of God.

4) AN ECHOED CALL TO CARE

Fischer ends the introduction with a clarion call to care, one that I whole heartedly say “AMEN!” to:

“The most devastating combination of words in the English language form a statement masquerading as a question: who cares? When this “question” is asked, a statement is made. The asker is expressing his apathy and disregard for the issue under discussion. It does not appear to matter, so why waste our breath?”

“Does it really matter if Calvinism is true or false? Does it really matter if we have free will? Does it really matter? Not at all, and yet, more than you could imagine. No, it doesn’t matter because God is who he is and does what he does regardless of what we think of him, in much the same sense that the solar system keeping spinning around the sun even if we’re convinced it spins around the earth. Our opinions about God will not change God; however, they can most certainly change us. And so yes, it does matter because the conversations about Calvinism and free will plunge into the heart of the question the universe asks us at every turn: Who is God? And this is a question that has everything to do with everything.”

(related previous posts)

– Introduction: A Journey In and Out of Calvinism

– Foreward: Strong Words With Strong Thoughts

FOREWORD – Strong Words With Strong Thoughts

FOREWORD – A SUMMARY

The foreword for “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed” by Austin Fischer is given by Scot McKnight, Professor at Northern Seminary. Not much to summarize in this foreword as it acts like a foreword – brief summary, brief snippet, and a word of commendation.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE FOREWORD

The foreword, like all the chapters in this book is relatively short. But the briefness of words does not limit this chapter to laying down some forceful blows. These statements and quotes by Scot McKnight (which I assume is echoed and expanded upon by the author) stood out to me

1) A question is raised about the “final end” (goal) of God

“I still read Calvin and Piper and Edwards, but with a hermeneutic of suspicion. I like their architecture, even if their furnishings need to be tossed into the garbage heap. I like the idea of God’s glory, but God’s love is the final end— not God’s glory.”

2) A question is raised about evil and suffering

“No one , he learned, can look Auschwitz in the face and not wonder how such a colossal act of barbaric evil can square with a God who determines all things. No one, he also learned, can stare at the prospects of hell in the traditional sense and not wonder about the goodness of God— or at least ask “Why?” And why would God create so many— the numbers stagger— knowing that most (again in the traditional Calvinist sense) will be there suffering forever and ever?”

3) A summary that acts as a commentary is given by Scot McNight

“In other words, he learned he had to believe some really horrible things about God to sustain his Calvinism.

And that God, he concluded, was not the God of the Bible. This book tells his story, and I hope you read it, and I hope you get a bunch of friends to read it together. Talk about it and ask one question, “Which view of God is best?” Or, “Is the Calvinist God the God of the Bible?” Or better yet, “Is the Calvinist God the God we discover when we look into the face of Jesus, the incarnation of God ?” Austin tells his answers to these questions at the age many need to begin answering these questions.”

MY TAKEAWAY

So what do I make of Scot McKnight’s foreword? In short – A LOT. But since this is just the foreword and he’s not the author and just providing a review, I won’t take time to engage it. Instead, I have just a few general thoughts:

1) This matters – I think Scot McNight nails it on the head when it comes to the major themes that is affected by the issues raised in this book. How I think about God  and how I think about evil and suffering in this world is 100% affected by how I view the line between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. And if that is the case, then it’s unfathomable to not wrestle with these issues. They’re not ideas made for ivory towers. These issues are the very fibers that forms our understanding (and faith) about God and about this existence we call life. Where we stand on these issues is where the abstract world of theology hits the real world of practicality.

Take for example the case when a child dies. How are parents to deal with this? Should they believe that “God had no part in this but will bring good from it” or should they say to themselves “I don’t understand all that God does, but I know He works for our good cause He loves us”. Those sound the same, but they are not. The difference in two are worlds apart and they are separated by how one views God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. Expand this example out to chronic pain in life, to massive disappoints, to unanswered prayers, to bizarre chances of fate that either devastates or fulfills hopes and dreams. How do we explain these? How do we think about these things? We all give some answer because that’s what it means to be engaged in life – and those answers say something about God and about man.

In the end, for the faithful believer who loves God and His word, this issue of God and man and whose will is decisive for life is unavoidable.

2) I don’t get it – One phrase I hear often by those that detest (and that’s probably the right word), detest Calvinism (or the doctrines of grace or reformed soteriology or whatever you want to  call it) is that it makes God out to be a moral monster. Scot McNight reflects this sentiment when he summarizes the author’s finding in the foreword with statements like

“And that God, he concluded (speaking of the author), was not the God of the bible.”

and questions like

“Is the Calvinist God the God of the Bible?” Or better yet, “Is the Calvinist God the God we discover when we look into the face of Jesus, the incarnation of God ?”

What I don’t get is if a theology makes God out to be a moral monster or teaches God as  “not the God of the bible”, then shouldn’t that theology be declared as heresy and those that teaches it to be heretical teachers? Shouldn’t Augustine and Luther and Calvin and Spurgeon and Whitfield and MacArthur and Piper be put in the camps of Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses? What can be more heretical than painting God not as He is in the bible and what can be more blasphemous than to make God out to be a moral monster? So something seems off here. Either the wordings used against Calvinism is correct and stronger actions needs to be taken or new wording needs to be found, ones that demonstrates the nuance of opposition while affirming orthodoxy (in the most obvious sense).

(Related Previous posts)

– Introduction: A Journey In and Out of Calvinism

A Journey In and Out of Calvinism

So I’m starting a new book along the others I’ve been slowly working through. This one is short but intriguing by title and intent:

Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism 

By Austin Fischer

The author is a young pastor that jumped on the bandwagon before college (if it’s a bandwagon) and now has come to the conclusion that what he learned from the likes of Piper, Mohler, Carson, Keller, and The Gospel Coalition were wrong. He’s come to the conclusion that the centrality of God’s glory is in fact His love and a view like that is incompatible with Calvinism. This is more written as a story of his own theological discover than a theological magnum opus, and because of that, I think it will be a good honest look at his pastoral wrestlings. I ran across this book based on a high recommendation from a Calvary Chapel pastor and from a post by Roger Olsen (strong Arminian theologian).

The chapters break down this way:

1: A Blind Date with Calvinism

2: Roots of Certainty, Seeds of Doubt

3: One Hell of a Problem (The Girl in the Red Jacket)

4: God Made Impossible

5: The Crucified God

6: The Glory of God (Is) the Glory of Love

7: Free Will, Kenosis, and a Peculiar Kind of Sovereignty

8: Monsters in the Basement

9: Walking With a Limp

10: Young, Restless, and . . .

11: Taming the Tiger (A.K.A. Romans 9)

Epilogue Endnotes