Lewis on the Christian Life
Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God Crossway, 2018. 320 pages, paper, $21.99
In addition to teaching literature classes at Houston Baptist University, I have the privilege of conducting our first and second year honors students through a four-semester series of lectures on the Western intellectual tradition. As an adjunct to the lectures, I offer each new class of students the opportunity to join me for a year-long study of C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters. Each week, we unpack together one of the thirty-one letters sent by senior devil Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood to instruct him in the fine art of tempting humans.
Why, out of all the available books for study, have I chosen, for ten years running, to focus on this one? Because I know of no other book that deals with the nitty-gritty of the moral-ethical life with such force and clarity. I also know of no other book that entertains so powerfully while convicting so effectively. Only the most stubborn, stiff-necked Pharisee could read these letters and not find himself therein. Rather than highlight "big" sins, Lewis reveals that we are more often led away from God's love and grace by a series of little sins that slowly dehumanize us.
Effortlessly fusing the insights of theology, ethics, and psychology, Lewis dissects, with humor and precision, the ability of the fallen human mind to justify its actions in the blink of an eye. Even as we unpack the letters, Lewis unpacks us, forcing us to turn our gaze inward, not for the purpose of excessive introspection--the goal of which is usually to find others to blame for our bad choices and anti-social behavior--but for spiritual meditation, self-knowledge, confession, and contrition.
Over the years, many people have asked me if any guides exist that would help them lead their own small group study of Screwtape Letters. Thus far, I've had to answer in the negative--but no longer. Although Joe Rigney's Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God is not, technically speaking, a guide to Screwtape, it lays out in lucid, accessible prose the full depth and breadth of Lewis's reflections on how to live out the Christian life in a manner that is moral without being pharisaical and virtuous without being legalistic. And he does so by explicating Screwtape alongside the full Lewis canon: in particular, Letters to Malcolm, The Great Divorce, The Four Loves, The Space Trilogy, Till We Have Faces, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and Lewis's voluminous essays and letters.
Rigney, professor of literature at Bethlehem College & Seminary and pastor of Cities Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, brings to his study the twin insights of a teacher and a preacher. Part of Crossway's magisterial Theologians on the Christian Life series--a series that includes such diverse figures as Augustine and Bonhoeffer, Luther and Calvin, Wesley and Schaeffer, Jonathan Edwards and J. I. Packer--Lewis on the Christian Life seeks not only to summarize and clarify Lewis but to use his insights to empower believers to experience new life in Christ in all of its fullness. Never holding Lewis at arm's length as an object for scholarly approval, Rigney presents Lewis as one who "understands the human heart, in all its deceitfulness and grandeur, both in its good design and in its twisted corruption...a master of revealing the secret springs of our actions, of unveiling the true motivations underneath the lies we tell ourselves and others" (22).
Rigney approaches the Lewis corpus by means of a vital distinction between either-or and both-and choices. Whereas many people falsely believe that they must make an either-or choice between such both-and pairs as "reason and imagination, enjoyment and contemplation...poetry and science, eternity and time, predestination and free will, masculinity and femininity, body and soul" (19), many more refuse to make the choice that they must make on a daily basis. In all of his written works, Rigney explains, Lewis's "aim is to remind us that we are here and now, that God is here and now, that this God makes total demands of us, and that therefore we must choose to bow the knee or to bow up, to surrender and join our wills to God's or to resist his will and insist on our own way" (31).
Without ever downplaying grace, Rigney presents discipleship as a series of decisions that draw us deeper into God's will while simultaneously making us more truly ourselves. For example, Christ's command to forgive our enemies is not only an objective action, rather than a subjective feeling; it is an action that must be repeated again and again. Forgiveness "means putting down the resentment and hatred and spite every time it rears its ugly head in our memory. It means a deliberate commitment to resist the temptation to fondle and nurse the grievance" (79). When we do not do this, when we instead feed the grudge, we cut ourselves off from God and diminish our humanity.
We must yield to God our pride and anger and bitterness, and, along with them, "the false sense of ownership we have about our lives" (92). We must realize that all things come to us as pure gift and that that gift meets us now, in the present moment. This understanding central both to Lewis and to Rigney's interpretation of Lewis, carries with it an important implication. "If the living God is here and now, confronting us with his presence, then prayer is precisely that point where we acknowledge that presence. Prayer...always involves a surrender, an embracing of God's ever-present presence" (107).
Our prayers, to be effective, must be nakedly honest, but they must not be driven by emotion or over-self-consciousness. Prayer, or worship, that turns the focus away from God and fixes it on us and our feelings risks becoming idolatrous. That is why Lewis was not a fan of novelty in church services. In the absence of "a stable and consistent liturgy...our attention is drawn to the service itself. We must think about worshiping, rather than actually worshiping" (96). In a similar way, when we try to practice the virtues of courage and charity, we must perform, in the here and now, the actions of courage and charity rather than try to self-consciously manufacture brave or charitable feelings.
Which is not to say that feelings are bad in themselves. God is by no means opposed to fun, happiness, and joy. Indeed, both Lewis and Rigney offer up simple, legitimate pleasure as one of the Christian's best defenses against the dangers of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. "Worldly pleasures create a crust of vague, half-conscious guilt and triviality around our souls. Genuine pleasures, enjoyed without guile and without regard for the approval of others, puncture that crust...They have the ability to shock us awake when the dreary music of the world has lulled us into a stupor" (153).
Borrowing the language of John Piper, Rigney helps us to access Lewis's surprising claim that God is a hedonist at heart. God, after all, invented all the pleasures, as he did all the virtues; the Devil can only take God's pleasures (or virtues) and twist and pervert them. It is not God, Rigney explains, but the "'sham realist' who debunks pleasures as illusions and mirages . . . [who] ruins our joys by provoking anxiety or shaming us by calling us 'childish'" (153). Taking a stroll in the park, reading a book we love, or eating a favorite dessert may not, in and of themselves, make us more virtuous, but they inoculate us against the false, twisted pleasures the devil uses to lure us away from God.
And they do something else as well. They strengthen our imagination, building in our heart and soul a vision of simple, healthy goodness and beauty. Rigney demonstrates why this is important through his incisive analysis of the method that Weston, the Satan figure in Perelandra, uses to tempt the Eve figure of Venus. In order to get "Eve" to disobey her Creator, Weston must first get her to imagine a world in which disobedience seems the appropriate and even good action. As it is on Venus, so it is on the earth: "[b]efore the Devil can corrupt our will, he must first corrupt our imagination. He must create a fantasy reality in which disobedience appears noble and good, or in which God appears restrictive and stingy. He must write a false play and invite us to perform in it" (179).
When he is not corrupting our imagination, Satan is busy corrupting our affections, our physical desires (Eros), and our friendships. Although all three of these earthly loves are good things that find their ultimate origin in God, they can easily go astray when we set them up as absolute goods. Unless "divine love orders and guides the natural loves to their proper end" (231), we will mistake the lower for the higher and fall into the abyss of idolatry. The true Christian response to our Eros-mad society is not to kill all erotic desire but to properly subordinate it to agape. "Resisting Eros's demands for total commitment is the first step in putting it back on its proper footing" (242).
Lewis and the Christian Life abounds with insights like these, but I would like to close this review by highlighting two aspects of Rigney's book that make it both timely and necessary. First, Rigney, while demonstrating a legitimate concern for Lewis's seemingly weak view of such Reformed shibboleths as total depravity, penal substitution, and predestination, does not simply force Lewis to agree with him. Rather, he quotes and fairly analyzes numerous passages that show Lewis to have had a robust understanding of and appreciation for 1) the depth of our sinful nature and our inability to purify our motives by direct moral effort, 2) the just wrath of God and the grace that transfers that wrath from us to Jesus, and 3) the full sovereignty of God and his prerogative as author to create and call his characters. Never co-opting Lewis's voice for his own, Rigney makes clear his minor disagreements with Lewis while simultaneously expressing his debt and gratitude, both as a teacher-preacher and as a Christian seeking to serve his Lord.
Second, Rigney refuses either to obscure or to apologize for Lewis's firm belief in the God-given goodness of hierarchy and the complementarity of the sexes To the contrary, he shows how biblically, rather than culturally, founded Lewis's views were and are and exhorts us to heed the dangers of collapsing all distinctions in the family or in the church. "Fathers and mothers are not interchangeable parental units. . . . The unity of the family and the church . . . has a richness and variety to it, unlike the bland uniformity of the collective, epitomized especially in a prison, where every convict loses his name and is simply given a number" (101).
If you merely want to cherry-pick the parts of Lewis you like and leave out the rest, then this is not the book for you. But if you are open to having your walk with Christ radically challenged and changed for the better, then this is a book that needs to be on your shelf.
Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist U, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 18 books include Lewis Agonistes, Restoring Beauty: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, From A to Z to Narnia with C. S. Lewis, and C. S. Lewis: An Apologist for Education.